Getting Excited about Clickers

When teaching a small (15-30 student) class, it’s easy to be interactive. My natural lecturing style is conversational, and I’m constantly asking students questions and breaking them into pairs or small groups to work through problems. I think a lot more learning happens when students actively engage with the material.

I’ll be teaching my first big (~150 student) lecture in the fall, and I want to shoe horn in as much interactivity as I can. If I rely on in-class one-on-one communication, it will be impossible to include everyone, and I want everyone in the class to be involved.

On Tuesday I met with Matthew Regan and Edward O’Neill from Yale’s Instructional Technology Group to learn about personal response systems, aka “clickers”. As far as I can tell from his web site, Matthew must be one of the world’s experts on the technology, while Edward seems to know an awful about all sorts of classroom tech. I had come to the right place!

I went into the meeting with specific questions and came away with clear answers:

Q: What’s a clicker?

A: It’s a piece of plastic that looks like a cheap calculator that students can use to answer questions during class.

Q: Why not just use Google Forms?

A: Two reasons: First, not everyone in the class will have a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Second, those devices are distracting–do you really want to be encouraging your class to look at their computer or phone during lecture?

Q: Do I get a basket of these things at the beginning of semester and have students choose one as they walk into class every time?

A: No! Students check them out of the library at the beginning of semester and bring them to class.

Q: Do I need hardware on my end?

A: Yes–The instructor plugs a dongle into her computer and the clickers talk to it.

Q: What software do I need?

A: Yale uses TurningPoint clickers and these have associated software that runs on Macs and PC’s.

Q: What’s the easiest way to use the software?

A: First, define a multiple choice question in the TurningPoint application. When the instructor is ready to poll the class, she presses the “Start Polling” button. When the students are done answering, the instructor presses the “End Polling” button and everyone watches a beautiful animated 3D bar graph of results appear on screen.

Q: Is there a better way to integrate clickers if I use Powerpoint to present my lectures?

A: Yes! Instructors can define questions in their slides and have buttons for starting and stopping polls in an easy to use toolbar. The fancy bar graphs appear inside the slides too. (Matt showed me a demo and it was just as slick as it sounds.)

Q: Enough of the nerdy stuff–What are some cool ways to use incorporate these things into lectures?

A: You can ask questions to see how well students are understanding concepts you just taught.

Q: That’s cool, what else?

A: You can follow that up with asking them to explain their answers to the person next to them and then re-polling. Usually, the class gravitates toward the right answer as the students who understand teach those who didn’t get it right away.

Q: That’s even cooler! What else?

A: Instructors who teach data analysis (like me), can collect personal (but not too personal) data from students and then analyze it in a future class.

At this point I was sold. Matt gave me a few clickers to play with, and I’m very excited to integrate them into my class.